I had one of those awful e mails a week or so ago, the name of an old Art School friend was shown as the sender, followed by the words ‘sad news’. I sat looking at it wth a sinking heart. I opened the three or so other e mails in the inbox first. I wanted to put off the evil moment for as long as possible. I have lost so many close friends in the past few years. This is one of the hideous truths of entering the zone of late middle / early old age. Your friends start dying off around you. In this case the friend was Michael Priddle. I had known him well since we had both gone to saturday morning painting classes for children in the old Brighton Art School building on Grand Parade. He was a middle class Grammar School boy, I was working class Secondary Modern. We were both twelve and inflamed by ‘art’. He was eccentric even at that age. Inceredibly polite and wildly enthusiastic. We would often visit the Brighton reference library together, then housed in the Dome building just across the road from the art school. This was mainly to look through a particularly large and glossy book on Salvador Dali. We were entranced by both Dali’s technique and his vision especially in such pictures as Premonition of a Civil War, or The Young Bride Auto-Sodomised by Her Own Chastity, though I doubt we understood the full import of the latter.
He managed to ride an eccentric old sit up and beg style bicycle at a time when we all wanted Claude Butler racing bikes with white taped drop handles and deraillier gears. He had exotic looks too, a kind of natural mediterranean tan with very black hair and a wide smile. Our ambition was to attend the art school full time at sixteen, something which happily we both managed to achieve. It would be hard to exaggerate the overwhelming sense of happiness we felt at that time and the thrill of moving forward into art school proper. After foundation he went off to Paint on the fine art course and I went off to Graphics and illustration. We led the usual sort of rackety 1960s art school lives, him much more than me as he lived away from home. He fell in love easily, wildly, and passionately. I remember his telling me about a visit he made to a girlfriend’s house to have tea with her and her father. He had been summoned just after he taken a tab of acid. He was therefore in, as it were, ‘mid trip’ when he arrived at their door. He managed through all of the drug incuced heightened reality to maintain his veneer of total politeness and was able to sit taking tea and cake while completely off his gourd and letting none of it slip through the mask for an instant.
His eccentricities were well known to all of us at the art school and when it was his 21st birthday we clubbed together and bought him a fine Victorian group of stuffed frogs engaged in various pursuits including one in a jaunty beret standing at an easel painting and he later used an image of a frog on his professional card. After Art School he stayed in Brighton for a while painting in room in Kemp Town with his bald parrot (it fell into some paint) and latterly in his little flat high up in Montpelier Road. He never really recovered from seeing Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey on the Cinerama Screen in Old Compton Street. His paintings after that time were full of references to robotics and oddly alienated states. There was a real fragility too as well as all the charm and eccentricity. He was ambitious but somehow lacked real self belief. He mounted an exhibition of his work in the foyer of the national theatre in I think 1978, and spent needless sums on full colour posters advertising it, in the event only his old friends turned up for the private view. He taught at Hastings School of Art and then at Chelsea and finally at Camberwell. We drifted apart. I would occasionally see him but I think he found the conventions of family life (I had three children by then) too much to take in. I saw him last at Camberwell College of Art when I gave a lecture on Edward Ardizzone. He was in the audience and after the talk pressed into my hands a very heavy envelope containing a novel he had written and asking me for an honest critique. The novel was as eccentric as its creator, but alas not really publishable, I did encourage him with the fact that he had actually finished writing a large and complex work of fiction, an achievement in itself. He announced that he was moving to live in the little ‘bothy’ in France which had bought some years before and where he spent his summers. It was not far from the Spanish border near Ceret. I never saw him again. I gather that he gave up painting and spent his time there writing. I have so far seen nothing else that he has written. He had alienated many of his old painter friends and withdrawn from contact with almost anyone. A French neighbour found him dead in his bed apparently of pleurisy. He had been dead for a week or so, a sad ending to a life so full of vivacity and promise.
I vividly remember going for a walk with him over the south downs near Lewes one glorious summer morning in 1975. We walked across the top of the hills while larks rose and sang in a flawless blue sky, it was a perfect moment. I took one or two photographs while we lay in the sun and chatted as ever about art and music and books. He had played to me just before we left for our walk William Walton’s Cappriccio Burlesque, a piece of typical jaunty Waltonian syncopated exuberance, a piece that I have associated with Michael ever since.
RIP Michael, your soul is surely out somewhere spinning in the Cinerama vastness of space just like the wide eyed baby star child at the end of 2001.